I am innumerate.
And what is that? most everyone will ask (except, perhaps, a few other sufferers.) It really is a word found in dictionaries, and it means
(in the simplest definition): “marked by an ignorance of mathematics and the scientific approach.”
I’m pretty smart in my own field, which is letters, arranged in any form whatsoever, in books and magazines and newspapers and even on the backs of cereal boxes. Give me 26 letters, you give me the world.
But from kindergarten onward, simple arithmetic was a struggle. And math? Forget about it! Just the sight of numbers, and my eyes glaze over, and my brain tiptoes out to lunch. Imagine my delight, then, when today’s Writer’s Almanac brought this poem, wonderful poem! all about numbers, in exactly the way I could understand them if anyone had ever presented them to me like this:
by Mary Cornish
I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.
I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.
And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.
Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.
And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.
Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.
“Numbers” by Mary Cornish, from Red Studio. © Oberlin College Press, 2007.